Poet, Critic and Cultural Curator Arundhathi Subramaniam lives in Bombay. Author of three books of poetry, she has co-edited an anthology of Indian love poems in English, Confronting Love, and is also the author of a prose work, The Book of Buddha. Her poetry has been published in various international anthologies and journals, and translated into many languages, including Hindi and Tamil. Recipient of several honours and awards, Arundhathi has been invited to several international poetry conferences in Italy, Spain, Holland, UK, Turkey and West Africa. She curates classical dance and Chauraha (an interactive arts forum) at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai. More details on Arundhathi are available in her profile. Click on her name at top right.
Here she is engaged in a broad-based discussion by Dr Jaydeep Sarangi, Professor of English, poet and scholar.
Jaydeep Sarangi: Would you please tell us about your early childhood days and parentage?
Arundhathi Subramaniam : I was born in Bombay – this strange, exasperating, addictive city and grew up here. It’s a city I’ve had a love-hate relationship with ever since. It makes me intensely uncomfortable and at the same time, I’ve never been able to escape it. Each time I manage to get out of here, I find myself returning.
My background was broadly liberal, I guess. Home was full of books. No one ever had to tell us to read. It seemed the inevitable thing to do. My elder sister and I never really had to fight the kind of battles for freedom that I know other girlfriends had to. There were no pressures about having to study, about choosing any particular lifestyle, any particular kind of career, any particular kind of life partner. And then there were fantasy worlds that my sister and I created that kept us busy and occupied for endless weekend afternoons.
My father had grown up in Madras; my mother in Delhi (her parents had lived a long while in Burma). Growing up south Indian in Bombay meant that one was inheritor to a varied linguistic landscape. The cadences of Tamil were familiar at home; Hindi was a second language in school and Marathi a third; and since I was in a largely Parsi school, I was surrounded by the very distinctive flavour of Parsi Gujarati. As a south Indian in Bombay, I never felt either my Hindi or Tamil were as good as I’d have liked them to be. But they were both very familiar. English was my main language, but it was always imbued by the textures of all these other languages that were such an integral part of my life.
J.S: Your schooling?
A.S: I went to a well-known girls’ school in south Bombay. JB Petit is considered even today to be one of the best in the city. We had a progressive principal and that made all the difference. But I confess I disliked school intensely when I was in it! I was one of those typically ‘good students’ who spent my growing years simmering silently at the unreasonableness, the regimentation and straitjacketing that seem to be part of the institutional fabric of even the most enlightened schools. There are school poems in all three of my books that deal with this ambivalence. Looking back, though, I realize I was probably lucky in my parents’ choice of school. It wasn’t one of those myopic marks-oriented institutions, and it encouraged the arts and all the extra-curricular activities that I liked – drama, elocution, poetry, debating. I suspect I was just too thin-skinned! That was my problem – probably nothing to do with the school.
J.S: Please tell us about your college life? Your friends…
A.S: St Xavier’s College was a breath of fresh air after the more inflexible structures of school. I loved the freedom and I think learnt as much – as collegians invariably do – from heated discussions over chai in the canteen and browsing in the library as I did from the lecture room. We did have some interesting lectures, to be fair. Eunice de Souza was one of my professors and her lectures on Modernism, Steinbeck and T.S. Eliot are still vivid in my mind. The fact that she was a poet as well added to the general awe in which we held her. But it was my interactions with friends – our half-baked but intense conversations on art and Marxism – that were really defining experiences.
A mentor figure was a Jesuit priest in the sociology department, Fr Rudolf Heredia. He never taught me, but he encouraged a bunch of us young people (who were all drawn to the life of the mind in some vague but impassioned way) to question fearlessly. It was from him that I learnt that a true teacher is one who doesn’t see dissent as disloyalty.
J.S: When did you feel that you have a talent for poetry?
A.S: I don’t know about a talent, Jaydeep. But I know that I’ve always loved poems. Ever since I was a child I was fascinated by the rhythms, the patterning of language that poetry entails. I realized pretty early that words were not just about meaning. As a child, most words in any case are beyond your understanding. But I learnt that you could enjoy words without necessarily knowing what they meant. I loved the shape of words, the sound, the flavour, the texture. I still do. So the sensuousness of language was an early discovery and that kept growing.
I wrote lots of doggerel, some crafty rhymes, some inane stuff all through my school days. I had some wonderfully encouraging teachers – I look back on Anahita De Vitre, Urmila Banerjee and Elizabeth Alexander with particular gratitude because they were affirming even of my clumsiest efforts! The poetry continued in college in a more covert way.
And then I finally found a forum I could go to that helped the process enormously – the Poetry Circle. This was – and still is – essentially a writers’ group. The idea is to read poems and offer constructive feedback on each other’s work. We’ve had difficult times, turbulent times. There’ve been times when the Circle has been pretty ruthless, pretty damning in its critiques. But it has also sustained and nurtured many of us. It was here that I met several of the city poets who are now good friends. Apart from Nissim Ezekiel, there was Ranjit Hoskote, Jerry Pinto, Prabhanjan Mishra, TR Joy, Menka Shivdasani, Marilyn Noronha, among others.
J.S: Are you bi-lingual? Do you write poems in Tamil/Marathi?
A.S: No, I write only in English. Tamil and Hindi are languages that I speak and understand, however.
J.S: Do you think that a strong first language can be a help or hindrance for a bi-lingual poet?
A.S: I’ve never considered writing in a language other than English, Jaydeep. Nor has it ever been a real choice. English is the language I know best, the language I think in, read in and write in. Yes, of course, I’m multilingual in the way most Indians are, which means I have a working knowledge of more than two languages. And that obviously shapes my poetry in all kinds of ways that I can’t describe and am not even aware of. But I don’t know what it is like to have the same degree of competence in two languages. I believe there are very few people who actually have this. It’s almost always a greater level of ease with one language than another, however well one might seem to straddle both.
J.S: Do you view writing in English as an obstacle to the expression of Indianness?
A.S: Not a bit. English is Indian – period. It’s as Indian as cricket and democracy. The English we write today smuggles words and registers from across multiple languages anyway, so there’s no question of us using some kind of stilted or archaic Queen’s English. This business of Indianness is raised periodically by a nativist bandwagon in our country, but thankfully, I don’t think anyone takes it very seriously any more.
To claim that one is Indian because one splits one’s infinitives or has a markedly regional accent is laughable. In his Harvard lectures, Borges says that poets don’t need to try to be contemporary, because in any case, no one has figured out how to live in the past or in the future. The anxiety over Indianness is similar. No one needs to try to be Indian; if you do, the end-result is going to be laboured and dishonest, not to mention, plain bad poetry. The point is that you and I – whatever our differences – are simply as Indian as they come. We can’t be otherwise, even if we tried.
J.S: Do you remember your first poem in English?
A.S: I was writing what I thought was poetry at the age of six and seven, Jaydeep! Silly little bits of verse. I remember one on the rain I wrote at seven. I remember a witch’s spell I wrote at the age of eleven. But the first poem that I can stand by is one I wrote when I was nineteen which went into my first book. It’s called ‘Amoeba’. I’m still fond of it.
J.S: Was there any mentor/idol for your poetry writing?
A.S: Nissim Ezekiel was a hugely encouraging presence for many of us young writers. We’d visit him at any hour at his office at the PEN, and even though he could be caustic in his criticism, we always knew he had no vested interests. You didn’t have to agree with him. But within the parameters that he espoused, he was generally fair. Later, poets like Imtiaz Dharker, Adil Jussawalla and Gieve Patel have been very supportive. Today they’re friends.
J.S: Who were the poets you read in your formative years?
A.S: I was omnivorous. Still am. So I read widely and indiscriminately – from Wallace Stevens to Basho, from Eliot to Neruda, from Rilke to Adrienne Rich, from Arun Kolatkar to Anne Sexton.
J.S: How does Mumbai figure in your poetry?
A.S: It’s recurrent – whether as a protagonist, as a cameo, or as a subtext. And strangely enough, it’s when I’ve been away for long spells – for instance, when I was on a writing residency in Scotland or down south in a yoga centre in Coimbatore – that I’ve actually found Bombay becoming even more dominant in my writing. Clearly, the distance actually distils its presence even more strongly.
J.S : "To be a poet today is, no doubt, to be an embattled entity in several cultures of the globe."...How does the poet negotiate this complex web of subjectivity?
A.S : Embattled because the poet today suffers – more often than not – from terminal invisibility! I mean, that most cultures of the globe have diminished, trivialized and marginalized the role of the poet. There are, of course, cultures where poets are gagged or muzzled – and that suggests that the establishment recognizes the deeply dangerous and subversive potential of poetry. But in far too many societies, poetry has been defanged by making it irrelevant. This is related to many other factors – the glamour attached to the novel (particularly the English novel in India, which is considered hugely sexy), the pace of modern life, popular culture with its emphasis on instant decodability, the intrinsic challenges of the poetic form, and much more.
And yet, this ‘terminal invisibility’ can be strength, Jaydeep! It leaves you free to experiment as much as you want without the pressure of market expectation. Someone said writing poetry is like throwing a petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for an echo! It’s true. It’s as crazy as that. And yet, the fact is that echoes do happen. And those are the rewards of writing poetry. But they are subtle echoes, and that’s how it should be, because poetry is a subtle creation. Poetry is – as I’ve said before – the art of the murmur. It’s only fitting that responses to it should be muted.
J.S: ‘Poetry makes nothing happen’, W.H. Auden once said famously. How do you read this axiom?
A.S: My previous reply applies here, doesn’t it? Yes, it makes nothing happen if you’re looking for gross and quantifiable results. But science tells us today that a tremor of a butterfly wing in California can affect storm systems in Beijing. So poetry can create all kinds of insidious tremors along your internal fault lines that you may never be aware of. And those tremors could change your life. In that respect, poetry makes everything happen.
J.S : Your poems seem to me as poems of commitment. How do you react to this observation?
A.S: That’s interesting. I certainly do see myself as a political creature. Not political in terms of any party affiliation, but as alert to and disturbed by unequal power structures in relationships of all kinds – of gender, class, caste, nationality, faith. To my mind, this becomes more overt in my second book, Where I Live, where many of the poems interrogate the voices that tell us how to belong – whether it’s how to be Indian, how to be a woman, how to be postcolonial, how to be Hindu. ‘To the Welsh Critic who doesn’t Find me Identifiably Indian’ is one such example. But there are more veiled critiques as well – such as in ‘Another Way’ (in which there is an indictment of Hindu fundamentalism) or ‘The Same Questions’ (in which there is a return to the perennially vexed question of violence).
If these issues relating to the political are deeply internalized, it helps. It ensures that it doesn’t sound bludgeoning or jingoistic in the poetry. John Burnside wrote in his review (in the Poetry Review) that my work raises ‘questions related to Dharma’ and that it asks ‘questions about morality and integrity that many poets simply refuse to take on.’
J.S :Your first book of poems, On Cleaning Bookshelves, is according to Amit Chaudhuri, a book of "Assured intelligent poems." How do you see them after almost eight years time?
A.S: It’s been almost nine years actually. And many of those poems were written many years before the book was published. My first book was probably fifteen years in the making. So it’s like looking back at the work of more than a decade ago.
I actually do like the book now. I think once the second book happens the first seems a little distant. But after the third book, affection for the first returns! It seems to me to be a reasonably strong book. It’s varied and exuberant. It moves tonally and stylistically in lots of different directions. And that gives it a density and texture that I like. At the same time, it explores themes that are to become later preoccupations – relationships, gender, the city, the existential journey.
J.S: where i live is a collection of poems dense with diverse thoughts. How do you give the wholesome poetics?
A.S: I see this as a collection of poems that return time and again to a basic concern – the gap between where I live and where I want to live. This gets played out on various levels – physically on the level of the body (‘Strategist’), culturally (‘Where I Live’, ‘Madras’), politically (‘To the Welsh Critic’), ethically (‘The Same Questions’, ‘Another Way’), and spiritually (‘Home’, ‘Tree’, ‘Interval’, ‘Reverb’, ‘Blue Glass Ashtray’ etc). I don’t think the poems ever suggest that there’s a formula for belonging. They seem to recognize that belonging will always be provisional and piecemeal. But the yearning remains.
J.S: You a few poems on ‘home’. Why is this longing for ‘home’ in you?
A.S: The above answer addresses this, doesn’t it? I suspect there is a primal mix of love and discontent that moves the pen move on the page for most of us. Poetry – or at least my poetry – is, almost always, about a certain kind of ache, a nameless yearning. This doesn’t mean, I hope, that it’s solemn, navel-gazing, sniveling stuff. I can’t stand that kind of poetry. Poetry without spine, without muscle, without a certain intellectual toughness doesn’t appeal to me at all. At the same time, poetry without emotion doesn’t work for me either. There must be an emotional axis in a poem. That’s what gives it tone, that’s what gives it its urgency, its raison d’etre.
J.S : If you are to mention some of your important poems covering all your anthologies which do you choose?
A.S: Interesting question, but difficult. I guess the title poems in the first two books – ‘On Cleaning Bookshelves’ and ‘Where I Live’. In the first book, ‘Heirloom’ has found its way into anthologies; also ‘5.46, Andheri Local’ and ‘Prayer’. In the second book, I think ‘Another Way’ is important too – the book was almost entitled ‘Another Way’. ‘Madras’ and ‘Welsh Critic’ have also been anthologized. In the third book, I guess it’s ‘Leapfrog’ and ‘Black Oestrus’. The phrase ‘deeper in transit’ (which is the title of the third book) is drawn from the poem, ‘Leapfrog’.
But thankfully, there are other poems that readers pick out and relate to. And I like that.
J.S: There is a big sweep in Indian poetry for the notion of hype (for special tags like ‘dalit’, ‘Activists’, Excess of morbidity and sexuality, etc). Will it define a new course of Indian English Poetry?
A.S: Do you mean that tags like ‘Dalit’, ‘feminist’ etc run the risk of being fetishised? Well, that’s dangerous, of course. I have no problem personally with a description like ‘feminist’ (I certainly consider myself one) as long as it isn’t used as a pigeonhole. It’s fine as an entry-point into someone’s poetry; not as a way of pulling the shutters down on an entire body of work.
As you’ll recall, at the seminar we both attended recently, the term ‘Bombay poets’ was used time and again as if to suggest an entire aesthetic school – one that was entirely ironic, and by implication, culturally rootless, politically toothless and spiritually anchorless. I find this kind of facile generalization on the upswing. It’s pointless and silly, really. Just bad punditry. And the unfortunate part is that a close, subtle, fine-tuned reading of the poems – with all their layers and inner movements and multiple contradictions – is lost.
It’s time to give up these pat academic categories. It’s time to start listening to the poems themselves. It’s time to start reading with passion, with curiosity, with care, with attention. We need to become better readers of poetry. And for that, we need to cultivate the humility to listen, without being in a hurry to impose our conclusions.
J.S: How do you see an interface between performing art and poetry writing?
A.S: I know it’s there. My love of theatre, my writing on culture, my curatorial work in Indian classical dance, my years of running an interactive arts forum – all these inform who I am in ways I’m not even fully aware of. So I don’t want to sound grandiose and dishonest. But I’m sure there are ways in which my love of the performing arts has influenced my poetry and vice versa.
Let me venture a guess. I think my love of reading poetry aloud, rather than merely on the page, derives from my love of theatre. (Or perhaps my love of theatre is derived from my love of the spoken poetic utterance!) I also think precision and passion, craft and creativity are important criteria for me in poetry, as they are in dance.
I’ve also often said I like the way in which poetry brings together the abstract and the concrete and makes them seem inseparable in metaphor. I’d like to write poems that make me feel I could crunch into an idea and yet make me feel I can see the smokiness of a thing. This bringing together of seeming contradictions – the tangible and the intangible – in the same verbal moment is the excitement of poetry. And I guess something similar happens in the finest Indian classical dance as well – it brings together the carnal and the cosmic, the sacred and the sensual, and makes you realize how inseparable they actually are.
J.S: Do you have any ‘fear’ about anything ?
A.S: I’m sure I do. Tons of fears. The latest being the fear of air pockets on flights! (So much for that line in my poem, ‘Another Way’ about being willing to dip and soar ‘through air pockets of vowel…’!) The fear of death – of extinction, of the unknown – is always there. It shape-shifts all the time. But it never quite goes away.
J.S: It is a real treat to converse with you, Arundhathi. Best wishes for all good poems in future!
A.S: Thanks, Jaydeep. This has been more interesting than I anticipated.
Poems by Arundhathi Subramaniam
("Anyone who has sufficient language nurses ambitions of writing a scripture" – Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev)
Not scripture, no,
but grant me the gasp
of bridged synapse,
the lightning alignment
of marrow, mind and blood
that allows words
from the cusp of breathsong,
from a place radiant
with birdflight and rivergreen.
Not the certainty
of stone, but grant me
the quiet logic
of the simple calendars of my childhood
of saints aureoled by overripe lemons.
Grant me the fierce tenderness
word slither into word,
into the miraculous algaeof language,
untamed by doubt
than snowstorms in Antarctica, wetter
than days in Cherrapunjee,
alighting on paper, only
for a moment,
to some place the voice
is still learning
but a tadpole among the stars,
unafraid to plunge
if it must –
only if it must –
To swing yourself
from moment to moment,
to weave a clause
that leaves room
for reminiscence and surprise,
dips and soars
through air-pockets of vowel,
lingers over the granularity of consonant,
never racing to the full-stop,
with the question mark,
even if it’s the oldest one in the book.
in the vast howling, rain-gouged
openness of a page,
asking the question
that has been asked before,
knowing the gale of a thousand libraries
will whip it into the dark.
To leave no footprints
in the warm alluvium,
no Dolby echoes
to reverberate through prayer halls,
no saffron flags.
This was also a way
of keeping the faith.